Friday, September 16, 2011

A tale of two critics

Today in the Wall Street Journal there is an interesting column by Terry Teachout about a couple of critics who were, in retrospect at least, corrupt. Criticism is always an iffy job as we talked about the other day but these two took it to the extreme.

There was an art critic named Clement Greenberg who, a lot of painters he gave good reviews to gave him paintings in gratitude for the good reviews. In time he built up a collection worth a fortune.

Then there is the music critic Virgil Thomson, pictured up above, who became a music critic for the New York Herald Tribune in hopes that his name would become better known and more people would program his music. That in itself might not be a bad idea, but the word got out that Thomson could be "bought" if you played his music.

I have to say I do not have a lot of sympathy for either of these guys. Especially the art critic. Terry Teachout seems kind of sympathetic to Greenberg. He writes: "Nobody who knew the famously outspoken Mr. Greenberg at all well believed that his critical judgment could be swayed by giving him a painting. Moreover, the now-famous artists whom he championed were unknown when he first wrote about them, meaning that their work had little or no monetary value. But in the hard-nosed world of journalism, appearance and reality are inseparably entwined..."

What he did not touch on is that Greenberg could not help but influence the value of the paintings he was given. A word from a critic like that, if he was that important, could mean all the difference as far as whether a painting like this ...

.... was an, ahem, masterpiece, or whether it was trash. I mean, like a lot of modern art it could go one way or the other. Much depended on Greenberg's thumbs up or thumbs down. He was a big influence on the market. If Greenberg gave one of these artists a glowing review, the chances went up that if the artist gave him a painting it would wind up being worth something. Hence no big surprise, that his collection wound up being worth a lot of money.

Oh, the world of visual art. Do not get me started! That painting by the way is Kenneth Noland's "No One." It was the example used in the story.

Virgil Thomson, to me he illustrates the growing gap between composer and audience. I wonder how many people outside of a handful of us eggheads have even heard of him. I bet most eggheads have not even heard of him. That opera Terry Teachout mentions, "Four Saints in Three Acts," Teachout writes that it is one of the most important American operas of the 20th century. Fine, who has ever heard it?

I wonder if it is on YouTube.


Well, there are a couple of Virgil Thomson clips and here is part of a Mass he wrote.

That's not too bad, you know? That is just about the best you can hope for, that something is not too bad.

I am trying to think if my reputation as a critic has ever been compromised, if anyone will be picking me apart in the future the way we are picking apart Greenberg and Thomson.

Once I got a bouquet of a dozen roses from a band called Smokin' Butt whom I mentioned in a story. Ha, ha! The good news: Miss Kunz, you got a bouquet of roses! The bad news: They're from Smokin' Butt.

As I go on frittering away my Friday....

Should you want to do likewise, here is the story in the Journal.

Great stuff to chew on.

1 comment:

  1. Here's a fun interview, David Dubal and Virgil Thomson from 1981: